Leaving the Electronic Sandbox

For the past few weeks, most of the time I can dedicate to video games has been dedicated to Polytron Corporation’s Fez and Richard Perrin’s Kairo. Though Fez is affirmatively a console game in its inspiration while Kairo has more to owe to the cryptic Myst series, both are monuments to reawakening childlike wonder, curiosity, and fulfilling play.

It may just be the incredibly nostalgic feels that Fez and Kairo bleed from their pixels and polygons, but lately it has felt like atmospheric wonder has been improperly hijacked by open-world sandbox action RPGs. Certainly wonder and curiosity were absolutely necessary for games like Far Cry 3 and Skyrim to be such influential industry successes. But these titles don’t really capture the same sense of play which other titles do. Their sense of enjoyment comes from personal character growth in addition to explorative elements. For an action RPG to be successful it must have an enjoyable ‘meta’ component to it, whether that be something as robust as Fallout‘s skill and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system or as simple as Far Cry 3‘s tatau. But having this meta system in a game which also attempts to showcase the wonder of basic world exploration is subject to steep diminishing returns – a game can only be made of so-much quantifiable win and awesome. As gamers, we sometimes forget that deferment of pleasure, even abject frustration with a mechanic, doesn’t necessarily detract a game’s enjoyability. If anything, I’d argue that the sandbox RPG may defer pleasure and satisfaction infinitely more than a simple adventure game with few normative measures of progress.

For the sandbox action RPG, the player is constantly seeking to change and affect the world around them. They are simulations of a semi-imperialist vision: power is accumulated to leapfrog from one area to another, all in constant search of higher mountains to climb and scarier beasts to conquer. Players experience the games like self-sustained relay races: goals are achieved solely through carrot-and-stick machinations. These games’ entertaining qualities can be conceptually mapped in an upward curve which sharply declines after its peak is reached. This also means that the journey they provide is usually best experienced from beginning to end with little-to-no breaks in play between. How often have you gotten to a halfway point of power in a game like Skyrim, stopped for some reason or another for an extended period of time, and had a hard time returning to that character? I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t quickly become bored in these games after I’ve built up an incredibly overpowered character who has explored most of the game’s content.

My experiences in games like Skyrim are pretty straightforward. I first create a character concept, like an Argonian illusionist/conjurer who likes to terrorize chickens (yes, a lizard wizard with an affinity for gizzard). I then spend the entirety of the game trying to realize that character concept in different situations. Though open-word RPGs aren’t exactly known for incredibly deep, resonating character choices, as the players I think we’re more than happy to create a narrative for how our character will interact in the world. I watch as my character gets more powerful from situation to situation, but the character ultimately is static – the only changes I get to experience are level-ups in which I can further realize my character to align with the concepts I imposed upon him/her to begin with. Basically sandbox RPGs are this weird sort of input-output machine: character concepts are created and then, while in the open world, we kind of look for more situations to prove, express, and almost exaggerate  that concept. And don’t get me wrong: sandbox RPGs are great. They are incredibly fun playgrounds of ideas, but they don’t really capture the imagination. Further, once the playground has been explored multiple times you begin to already know how a character concept will play out in different situations – this makes the sandbox lose its appeal, though it certainly will be strong for a few hundred or-so hours. Rather, they rely on our own imagination to provide narrative importance and context. Explorative games such as Kairo, Fez, and Myst contrast in that they force an altogether different structure on the player: they capture the imagination with their worlds, but ask the player to provide objective logic to decrypt their secrets.

Explorative games such as Kairo, Fez, and Myst contrast in that they force an altogether different structure on the player: they capture the imagination with their worlds, but ask the player to provide objective logic to decrypt their secrets. The normative means of progress which these games provide – if present at all – is more nebulous and abstract to the player. Rather comparable to a relay race, these games are more akin to visiting an art museum without a tour guide. If sandbox action-RPGs are about obtaining power in order to more effectively conquer the surrounding world and realize a character concept, the exploration title is about active submission to the world portrayed. Focus lies not upon becoming a powerful character who can turn a menacing blood dragon’s bones to ash, but upon experiential reception of atmosphere in attempt to become attuned to it. For example, other than a relatively barebones achievement system through Steam, Kairo retains little to-no-normative meta-system to track progress in the game. Instead of giving any clear semblance of where you are in a grand, meta-narrative arch it consists of many tiny atmospheric clues which act together to form a faint impression of narrative structure. This makes it so the game doesn’t quite have the steep peak that a sandbox action-RPG might carry, but it also doesn’t rely upon reference to a chain of signification inside the simulated social playground.

While playing exploration games I may end up taking significantly more breaks from them than I would a sandbox RPG, but I usually can go back to them and be just as enthralled by their world. Though yes, the game isn’t tailored for me to go on my own journey as much as the journey the game wants to put me on, they still offer incredibly rewarding experiences of various depth. Not only is there reward in figuring out the logical machinations of a particular puzzle, but often there is a certain amount of atmospheric depth in these games foreground which is more accessible than, say, the somewhat vapid, obscure lore of The Elder Scrolls.

All of this really isn’t just to say that sandbox action-RPGs are so inferior to games built almost exclusively around exploration. The two genres just have incredibly different design goals which might be at ends with each other; further, the current market is over represented with good examples of the former, but in need of exploring and continuing the latter’s existence. Explorative adventure games are not exactly guaranteed ventures of market success, so we aren’t likely to see “big name” companies drop a few dimes on some kind of artsy exploration title. Hopefully indie developers – whose costs and designs usually cater toward niche, special-interest markets – can ensure that the tradition of thoughtful, explorative games can continue.




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